Smart Meters, Fake News and the IoT

Do smart meters spread Covid?  Of course they don’t.  Not even the fake news community have suggested that.  As regular readers will know, I’ve been socially distancing from smart meters ever since the British Government took what was basically a good idea and morphed it into a £15 billion IT disaster.  Despite that, I still got Covid.

Do smart meters encourage fake news?  Absolutely.  Here in the UK we have a Government funded agency called Smart Energy GB, which specialises in misleading advertisements in an attempt to persuade people to install the world’s most expensive smart meters.  I believe they may have the honour of producing the largest number of advertisements from a Government body to be banned for misinformation.  But they’re not letting a little issue like that stop them from peddling more fake news. 

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When Smart Meters go wrong

Most people don’t think much about firmware – the embedded software which runs the microcontrollers in all of the devices we have around us.  We’re aware of the frustration when they don’t do what they’re meant to, at which point we realise that “smart” may not have been the best adjective to use to promote the product, but even when they do go wrong, turning them off and on again, or taking the battery out generally clears the problem.  They almost always go wrong because the design process didn’t include enough testing, or not enough time was given over to thinking about the “edge cases” – those unexpected combinations of events which result in things not working the way they should.  Most of the time it’s just a short-term annoyance; if it’s worse than that we’ll probably send it back, or throw it out and buy a new one.

However, we do expect safety critical devices like cars and planes and national infrastructure to be a lot better designed than this.  Your boiler turning off because it thinks there’s a flow problem when there isn’t is annoying (time for a firmware upgrade please, Vailant), but it’s not life threatening.  In contrast, a self-driving car that runs over a cyclist is not something the public is generally happy about.  Nor is a plane falling out of the sky.  But where would you put a smart meter in the scale of things that might affect your life?  Last week we found out, and it’s not a happy answer.

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How to Hack a Smart Meter and Kill the Grid

Last week was a watershed for the embedded security community, and by implication everyone else.  Bloomberg announced that rogue chips had been found on the motherboards of servers sold by Super Micro Computer to companies like Amazon and Apple.  Whoever had added these during the manufacturing process would have acquired the ability to control and access data from the servers when those companies installed them.  For the first time, it appeared there was evidence that the supply chain could be disrupted.  That meant hacking was happening during the manufacturing process, before the products had even left the production line.

Up until now, hacking has predominantly been viewed as getting malicious code into a device which is “clean”, by exploiting security flaws in its code.  That’s what’s happened with every PC virus; attacks like the WannaCry ransomware, and state sponsored attacks such as Stuxnet and the recently discovered attempt by Russian hackers to infiltrate the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.  Although the concept of hacking a product before it has shipped has been discussed for years, the Bloomberg report signals that we’ve moved from academic debate to reality.

There is still debate about whether the report is correct.  Apple and Amazon deny much of the detail, but its publication has started people looking more closely at the supply line and concluding that whether or not it is true, the way we design, subcontract and manufacture complex electronic products today means that it is possible.  If it is true, this attack was probably commercial, where a company or a state wanted to discover what leading global companies were doing.  What is more worrying is the prospect of a future where malicious state actors target infrastructure with the aim of crippling a country.  Which brings me to smart meters.

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GB Smart Metering no longer financially viable

Last week the British Infrastructure Group (BIG), comprising 93 Members of Parliament and the House of Lords, delivered a devastating report on the British Smart Metering Project.  Titled “Not So Smart”, their headline assessment is that it is a “roll-out which is set to become yet another large scale public infrastructure project delivered well over budget which fails to deliver the expected benefits.”

It is very gratifying to see the issues I’ve been writing about for the last six years confirmed.  In the past, the energy industry and civil servants have succeeded in pulling the wool over the eyes of various Parliamentary Committees, who, lacking adequate technical expertise, have simply repeated the mantra that the project is more or less on track.  The British Infrastructure Group have cut through that obfuscation.  In their summary they suggest that the average consumer saving will be reduced to just £11 per year.

Whilst I applaud this report, I fear that the group members may still be wearing their rose-tinted ermine.  Their conclusion about the reduced savings comes from looking back at BEIS’ numbers from 2016.  If you look forward at the additional problems and costs which are still in the pipeline it becomes clear that the GB Smart Metering programme is no longer financially viable.  Rather than a saving of £11 per year for each household, it’s more likely to result in an increase in annual energy bills of £67 for the next decade.  With the publication of this report, the last vestiges of BEIS accountability have been ripped away.

Let’s examine what is still going wrong.

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Smart Meters and Fake Headlines

Last month I wrote about an advert from Smart Energy GB promoting the current smart metering programme.  The headline was that by having a smart meter installed you could save enough energy to charge your mobile phone for 177 years.  It’s a good headline to attract people’s attention, but it seemed high.  I was intrigued and decided to try and work out where that number had come from?  I found that the calculation was riddled with mistakes and that a more realistic analysis showed that the saving was equivalent to charging it for just 17 years.  I’ve since realised that even that figure was optimistic and in fact it’s just 16 years.

A reader kindly informed me that Smart Energy GB has produced a wider series of these adverts and have published how they calculated the claims.   They obviously think they understand what they’re doing, as they’ve put the basis of their calculations on their website.   (In case they change them after reading this, I’ve archived the version that was on their website when I wrote this article at http://bit.ly/dumbenergyGB.)   Their webpage explains the workings behind seven adverts and in every single case they’ve got their calculations wrong.  The mistakes range from a failure to understand how battery charging works, an inability to calculate percentages, getting formulas wrong, misreading much of their source data, including mistaking 2 x 12 for 212, not understanding the context of their source data or realising that electricity and gas have markedly different prices. 

Most of the adverts overestimated the savings, but a few underestimated them.  So, there was probably no deliberate attempt to mislead.  Just an unbelievable level of incompetence.  But we mustn’t fall into believing this type of fake data.  Once we stop questioning, we set the scene for Orwellian manipulation. 

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Telling Lies about Smart Meters

What do you do when your smart metering plan isn’t working?  Looking at the efforts of Smart Energy GB, who are tasked with persuading the nation to install 50 million smart meters which aren’t really fit for purpose you do two things:

  • You ask the Government to double your funding with an additional £95 million of public money. Then…
  • You spend it on inaccurate adverts.

The particular advert I’m talking about demonstrates one of two things – either that Smart Energy GB are lying through their teeth, or they can’t add up.  Although given the sad history of this program, there’s a fair chance it could be both.

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